AP file (left); Getty Images file (right)
President Bush at ground zero on Sept. 14, 2001 and presidential candidate John Kerry addressing the   International Association of Fire Fighters earlier this year.
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 10/8/2004 11:26:45 AM ET 2004-10-08T15:26:45

The battle for the votes of the heroes of 9/11 -- the firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel—is one neither party wants to lose. While the first responder vote isn’t likely to deliver either candidate a victory on its own, the iconic status of 9/11 imagery carries its own political currency coveted by political parties.

On the law enforcement front, the Fraternal Order of Police officially endorsed President Bush last Friday. The group also endorsed Bush in 2000 but backed Clinton in 1996.  Meanwhile, in May the International Brotherhood of Police Officers gave its support for Sen. John Kerry although the union threw its endorsement behind Bush in 2000.  Last week the National Association of Police Organizations, representing 2,000 police unions and associations, announced its endorsement of Kerry the day after the ban on the sale of assault weapons expired.

And despite the International Association of Fire Fighters, representing 236,000 fire fighters and emergency medical personnel, officially endorsing Kerry last year, the group’s New York local threw its highly visible support behind Bush during the Republican National Convention. 

Although national level endorsements appear to split the first responder vote, numerous factors determine how the rank and file actually vote in November. 

Those factors include: 

  • A steady drumbeat of discontent from state and local government officials about the lack of promised homeland security funding;
  • Costs of unfunded mandates stemming from elevated terrorist threat levels have lead to one-in-five police departments laying off uniformed officers;
  • Proposed budget cutbacks reducing funding for fire houses, police and emergency training;
  • First responders being called up for National Guard and Reserve duty in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • President Bush’s steady public support on his handling of terrorism issues.

Both parties have worked hard for the first responder vote, even though “the community of first responders is so small in the context of the nation that those individuals cannot have significant impact on the election outcome,” says Jon Krosnick, a political science professor at Stanford University. 

Those votes are coveted because what they lack in overall numbers and ability to sway an election, they deliver in imagery and emotion.  The first responder vote will “likely carry more weight in what they signal to other voters, for example, if it is apparent that first responders will support Bush or Kerry, then this might influence the votes of others,” said  Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.

Scenes from Ground Zero are now burned into the public’s memory, images such as President Bush, flanked by fire and rescue teams, being handed a bullhorn by a fire fighter to address the crowd amid the still smoldering rubble.  But when the International Association of Fire Fighters gave its support to Kerry last year the Bush team was in danger of losing a valuable symbolic endorsement.  But that didn’t happen.

Indeed, when Bush came to New York last month for the Republican National Convention his very first stop was at a fire house where the local Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, pledged its support for the president.  A video of the event was shown that night on the floor of the convention.  The endorsement countered the national union’s support of Kerry; however, the New York union representing the city’s fire lieutenants, captains and other officers has endorsed Kerry. 

Kerry’s campaign got a major boost last year on the heels of the IAFF endorsement and also hasn’t hesitated to use footage of that event in campaign ads.

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The IAFF is comprised of 2,900 locals in 50 states that belong to state associations and each local is free “to make their own political decisions,” said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for IAFF.  “It’s very autonomous.”

And it’s personal.  “I voted for George W. Bush in 2000, but I won't do it again in 2004,” writes Dan LaBerge, a firefighter and member of Local 856 in Manchester, N.H. on a web site testimonial page dedicated to firefighters for Kerry. “President Bush doesn't understand the challenges America's firefighters face. He talks about homeland security, but he has failed to provide the resources we need to do our jobs safely and effectively. John Kerry has pledged to secure federal funding to put 100,000 new firefighters on the job. That's why I support John Kerry,” LaBerge writes.

Countering the official union line, however, are just as heartfelt testimonials located on the Firefighters for Bush web site.  “I am a member of IAFF local 1563. The Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters union has endorsed John Kerry. This is the opinion of only a few of our members (mainly in the executive board.),” writes Brian Hunt in the board’s comment section.  “The majority of backstep [sic] firefighters are conservative republicans and vote accordingly,” he wrote.

According to IAFF’s own survey of its membership, 44 percent count themselves Republican compared with 40 percent who say they are Democrats with the remainder independent or not identified with any one party.  And 87 percent of those members identify their overarching political philosophy as “moderate conservative,” said Zack.

Still, Zack said the union believes it can deliver its membership’s vote for Kerry.  “When our union endorses—and we endorse on fire service employment issues — over 60 percent of our members follow that endorsement, whether it’s for a Democrat or a Republican,” he said.

Although the IAFF supports Kerry this year and endorsed Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 election, Zack insists that the union supports “friends of firefighters.”  For example, Zack notes, the union endorses the Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and even threw him a big reception in New York during the GOP convention.  And in the last election cycle the IAFF supported Arizona Republican John McCain for the Senate and Republican Jeb Bush for the Florida governorship. 

Hearts and minds
The disconnect between the union leadership and some of its rank-and-file doesn’t come as a surprise to Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, who has done research into how private lives impact public votes.

Union leadership is typically “more Democratic and liberal” than its membership, Wilson says.

The union leadership is charged with making all their decisions in terms of specifically the narrow interest of that group,” Wilson says, “whereas people, who in the daily lives, might be members of the union,  are also members of a lot of other social groups that would influence their vote.”  Wilson cites union members that also attend churches where “their religious identity would push them in a different partisan direction than their union membership.”

Wilson notes that this election cycle first responders could well emulate the “ Reagan Democrats ” of the 1980s

“Reagan Democrats, especially in the mid-west and states like Ohio and Michigan, were by-and-large union people but they were union people who, on cultural issues and foreign policy issues were really drawn to Ronald Reagan,” Wilson said, “and so they kind of bucked the normal union trend and ended up voting on the Republican side.”

But those distinctions are only important if they translate into votes.

“In this specific case, I would expect that even though all the major national union leadership will line up behind Kerry, that actually the votes of policemen and fire fighters would be much more divided than that,” Wilson said, “if anything with a slight advantage for George Bush because the rank and file don’t necessarily take their political cues from the union leadership.”

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